From an early age, we talk to people about the positive and negative influences of peer pressure. On the negative side, drug education programs talk about the effect of social groups on whether a particular individual will take drugs. On the positive side, Austin, Texas has a highly successful day of giving in which members of the community urge others to donate to their favorite charities.
But, how much influence do you really have on the actions of other people? Are you aware of the effect you have on others?
This issue was explored in an interesting paper by Vanessa Bohns, Mahdi Roghanizad, and Amy Xu in the March, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
This paper focused on peer pressure to do negative things. In one study, participants were college students. They went on campus and asked other students to commit a white lie. They were asked to approach other students and ask them to sign a sheet acknowledging that the participant had described a new class at the university to them, even though the participant was not going to describe the class because he/she “didn’t really want to do it.”
Before starting this task, participants estimated how many people they would have to ask in order to get three students to sign the forms. They also asked people how comfortable others would be in saying “no” to the request. Then, they went out and solicited white lies.
Participants predicted they would have to ask an average of 8.5 people in order to get three signatures. In fact, they only had to ask an average of 4.4 participants in order to get those three signatures. Generally speaking, people felt that others would be comfortable saying “no” to them. The more comfortable they thought others would be saying “no,” the more people they thought they would have to task before getting the required signatures.
A second study replicated this finding using a situation in which participants asked others to write the word “pickle” in a library book in pen. Once again, participants believed they would have to task twice as many people to get three people to commit the small act of vandalism as they actually did need to ask.
Two other studies looked at why this effect emerged. These studies used vignettes in which people imagined small unethical acts like reading someone’s private Facebook messages if their account was left open or calling in sick to work in order to go to a baseball game.
Some people read scenarios in which they were going to perform the act themselves. Others read scenarios in which they were watching someone else performing the act and they could give them advice. In one situation, the advice was either to do the unethical thing or the ethical thing. Participants rated how comfortable they would feel doing the ethical thing in these scenarios.
Participants who played the role of advisor did not feel their advice would have much impact on others. They felt that other people would be reasonably willing to do the ethical thing whether they were giving other people advice to do the right thing or to do the unethical thing.
In fact, though, participants playing the role of the actor were much less comfortable doing the ethical thing when they got advice to do the unethical thing than when they got advice to do the ethical thing. That is, people were highly swayed to do the wrong thing by the advice they got.
Other studies by Vanessa Bohns and her colleagues have demonstrated similar findings looking at ethical behavior.
Putting all of this work together, then, it seems that we have a hard time saying “no” to other people. Social pressure has a huge influence on our behavior. At some level, that may not seem surprising to us, but we systematically underestimate the influence that our social pressure has on other people.
One more reason why we should try to help other people to do the right thing.